Manipur`s woe: Inventing the wheel all over again

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By Pradip Phanjoubam

The behaviour of ace boxer Ngangom Dingko, Asian medalist, Padma Shri, and to give the Devil his due, the person to break what was for the state’s boxing world the sound barrier – demonstrating to younger budding boxers of the state that given the commitment, the world is within their reach – was sad and outrageous at the same time. It was sad because a beautiful romance of a boy who grew up in an orphanage rising to such sporting heights should end not even with a bang but with a whimper. It is outrageous because what he did, assaulting three young girls so savagely for such a frivolous reason, was not only a crime in the eye of the law, but unimaginably uncivilised. The unfolding episode is almost a replay on a smaller canvas, the story of the rise of fall of Mike Tyson, the American heavyweight champion of the world in the 1980s, who at one time was thought to be the ultimate culmination of the history of boxing. Tyson’s story too, it will be recalled, ended with a whimper, and six years in jail for sexual assault. Dust unto dust, so they say.

The Dingko matter is in the court of law, so it would not be appropriate to be judgmental on the issue other than say it is extremely unfortunate that a pioneering sportsman who opened up the gates of possibilities in such a dramatic fashion, paving the way for more boxers from the state to rise to great heights, should make such a disgraceful exit. The consolation is, there are now others who can bear the mantle of leadership in the field much more befittingly and gracefully – needless to name who this may be.

So much for the sorry development… let the wisdom of the court decide the extent of the man’s guilt and the proportionate punishment he should be awarded.

On other fronts, there are numerous issues which deserve urgent public attention, and I will pick up one or two in this column. The foremost is the regrettable development today in which certain forces, such as the Film Forum, are attempting to control through radical censors, artistic liberty and therefore an important freedom of expression. So many have commented on this before, even in this newspaper, how these self ordained art authorities and monitors have introduced a new norm of banning artistic expressions in Manipuri using vocabularies borrowed from other languages.

The initial provocation for this move can be guessed and appreciated. There is often a tendency amongst those who consider themselves as elite to stupidly think they are clothing themselves with a superior status by pretending, or presuming, they have become awkward with their own mother tongue, and therefore speak in awkward accents, grammar, using expressions which are deliberate and clumsy hybrids of their mother tongue and English or Hindi.

This is however not unique to Manipur, but all societies, especially those which went through the dehumanisation of colonialism – cultural or economic. It is also a phenomenon not unique to present day Manipur either. Amongst the Meiteis as nascent Hindus for instance, when their society was still fired by the fanatical zeal of new converts, it was once a fashion and symbol of elitism to lace conversations with Bengali and Sanskrit words, and this too with a flourish. Like all fashions, this one too died its natural death. No need for reminders that fashions, any fashion, have a very short shelf life. The only way it can be given a longer life is when somebody tries to end it with coercion. Human nature is such that any form of coercion triggers resistance.

This imitative elitism is a social pathos. Frantz Fanon in ‘Wretched of the Earth’ calls this phenomenon a manifestation of self hate of the colonised mind. In this, the oppressed begins to envy the oppressor, and though professing a hatred for his oppressor, craves at another level to emulate him, for his oppressor begins to symbolise for him what civilisation is. Not only this, he begins to hate his oppressed self, and others in the same predicament as him, for he sees in them his despised self. The oppressed thus is often the bigger oppressor of other oppressed peoples, and this should explain why, in popular literature and understanding, slaves often are crueller to other slaves, and women often are crueller to other women. The mother-in-law, the sister-in-law etc, therefore are often depicted as crueller to the daughter-in-law, or vice versa depending on how the power equation is placed.

It is painful to bear with people who have come to believe pretending to be awkward with their mother tongue is a sign of superiority, but it is only they who in the final analysis will prove to be at the butt end of the ridicule. Rather than applaud, many laugh amused at their ways, though they may not know it. Rather than threaten the mother tongue, as in the past, it is their fashion which will not last. If at all any vestige of this fashion should survive, it will be on account of the catholicity of the mother tongue, absorbing it as a part of itself in confident generosity. It will also be at no detriment of the generous. Why cannot the self ordained cultural monitors have faith in the resilience of their mother tongue that it will not be threatened by these little aberrations here and there?

But there is another side to the debate. Language is a living organism and like all living organisms, it too grows and transforms as time passes by. Among others, it does so through cultural osmosis. Any linguist will testify, to be able to come to terms with new realities, some of which other culture may have already gone through, languages continually borrow and incorporate words, idioms and phrases from other languages. It is a natural survival strategy. Every time the Oxford English Dictionary is revised, the editors announce the number of new foreign words that have been incorporated into the English language, and this can be as much as 40,000 at each revision.

Conversely, the only languages which do not grow and transform with time are the dead ones – like Sanskrit for instance. There can be no doubt, it is (or was) a very rich language, but one which has ceased to be a living organism. It remains ‘uncontaminated’ and ‘pure’ but the irony is, this is precisely because it is no longer alive and in use. It is also ironic that the cause of the death of languages is often on account of their remaining away from the democratising influence of marketplaces and other forums of mass communication, and thus kept reserved only for the stratospheres of the elite.

I cannot imagine what a ‘pure’ Manipuri language would be like. I cannot even think of a name for such common vegetables as cabbage and potato, the words for which are ‘kobi’ and ‘alu’. Probably there were original words for these for they are so common, but they had been replaced by prolonged market references to them by new words. ‘Kobi’ and ‘alu’ are indeed very much Manipuri today, just as ‘jungle’ and ‘khaki’ are English. In some cases, probably Manipur never had any experiences of the things signified by some words such as aeroplane, rocket, computer, dictionary, spectacles, sun glasses, pen, pencil, spanner, wrench, electron,… Are we to invent new words for them all? Why invent the wheel all over again?

Art grows and abounds only in an atmosphere of freedom. Let art in Manipur be freed of all shackles. Let us have the confidence in its resilience and in the resilience of the people to reject and absorb what is good for itself/themselves without any overseeing by any dictatorial ‘Big Brother’. As it is, the art scenario in Manipur is being increasingly stifled by self isolation, partly because of geography, and partly again because of puritan monitors. The film industry for instance is becoming a frog in the well, or ‘heibong manung-gi tumit’,  (the fleas inside the fig fruit), as it has little interactions with the outside the world, therefore nothing to emulate from the best of the world’s or the country’s film industries. Cinema theatres, once vibrant, and multiplying are either dead or at best moribund today, with neither Hollywood nor Bollywood, or any other known film genre making an entry into the state. They are more and more coming to resemble the substandard, pathetically melodramatic TV serials on satellite channels, for airwaves nobody here can monitor, at least not yet.

On a lighter vein, this obsession with purity can prove to be ridiculous even without anybody help and even if the intent is perfectly honourable. It is with interest many of us are watching the unique and admirable phenomenon of the Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party, AAP. His concern for honesty in politics came at a time the country has become sick and tired of corruption and dishonesty and the trust the people placed in him was demonstrated in his election victory in Delhi. He and his party will probably be, and we hope he is, a force to reckon with in the Parliamentary election as well. But his single track vision of purity and honesty, and the symbols of these, is getting a little tiring and perhaps will be his undoing. This will be unfortunate, for it would mean the wasting away of such a potent and beautiful force of change.

Samples of some telling jokes about this obsession with purity of intent will articulate louder the dangers of Kejriwal marginalising himself in his hunt for symbols alone. Here are some jems: ‘Kejriwal is so honest he does not buy undergarments with VIP marked on them’; ‘Kejriwal is so honest he insists on cooking Maggie Noodles only for two minutes’; ‘Kejriwal is so honest he laughs out loud every time he SMSes LOL’; ‘Kejriwal is so honest he insists on returning the bomb to the terrorist when one is found’; ‘Kejriwal is so honest when he throws a party, he also calls the police at 10 pm to break up the party’.

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